Drawing as Play - An Interview with Xiang Yata

Xiang Yata is one of the rare cartoonists whose work can transport readers into another realm. With methodical plotting and an innovative approach to media, Xiang Yata builds books that feel like tangible environments we can enter. No work exemplifies this better than Optometry, Xiang Yata’s long awaited graphic novel. Following a young woman’s exploration of multiple overlapping dimensions of reality, Optometry includes drawings, paintings, prints, digitally-rendered images, photographed miniatures, and more.

Several new books by Xiang Yata have recently been published, including Captivity, published by Paradise Systems, and Ruby Light, published by Paper Farm.  

Paradise Systems: When did you start drawing and what was your educational background?

Xiang Yata: My mother said that even as an infant she knew this was the profession I had been given. My father studied painting and we had plenty of art catalogues in our home. When my parents left me at home, I would sneak a look at my father’s painting and design books or copy the illustrations in children’s books. Later, when I saw Beijing Opera performers on TV, I copied their clothing.

When I started elementary school, I studied art fundamentals with one of my father’s friends. I learned sketching, colors, life drawing, and how to interpret the world through a Van Gogh-type impressionist lens. During high school, I tested into the Attached High School of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art. I continued my studies of the fundamentals of art, but I also began to look at art magazines from around the world and pirated comics. When I was accepted to the Animation School of the Beijing Film Academy, I was fascinated by the extremely stylized work of European animators, and wanted to work in that vein.

PS: When you’re making comics, what aspects of the work do you focus on?

XYT: I’m most attuned to the original inspiration, to whether the image I picture in my mind in that moment is pushing me to record it on paper. I believe that inspiration is the essence of life that accumulates in your body and solidifies into an incredible chemical reaction, keying you into the most fascinating aspects of life. That’s why work made under a lot of constraints never turns out well.

PS: Can you discuss some of your recent projects? It seems like you have several books all coming out at once.

XYT: I spend half my time working and the other half creating. In recent years, I have been focused on completing Optometry, a longform comic. I also made “Post-Childhood,” “Miss Shelly,” and “Juge Book,” several mixed media works that appeared in exhibitions. I participated in some comics exchange projects and open calls.

The books being published now are from a body of comics that I’ve been building since I graduated. There were no opportunities to publish when I was in college, but now the field of book making is more diverse and I’m finding more opportunities to publish my work.

PS: You seem to have a very experimental approach to materials, such that every book looks completely different. Can you talk about your use of materials?

XYT: Like kids, I’m always interested in learning about new things and trying them out, even if it means I won’t be very good at it. I think of drawing as play, not work, so just like one bores of playing a certain game, I start to long for something new. It also seems like my life has never been stable. I often have to move, and every time I arrive at a new place and find myself in a new environment, I’m struck by new creative impulses. I usually think of images first and then gradually build a story around it. I think about how to give the story the texture that it requires. Choosing the correct medium is important. Even though the choice ultimately comes down to the creator’s feelings and experiences, choosing the wrong medium can be a big setback for the work.

PS: What are the greatest challenges you face when making comics?

XYT: I don’t feel I face any challenges when facing my comics. Once I’ve waited for inspiration, it’s just about following the channel laid out before me. I just need the stamina to withstand the loneliness of it. Right now the biggest challenge I have is finding the time. I often have a lot of other work to do, and I can’t fully invest myself. The amount of time I spend just drawing comics is small. That’s why it takes me so many years to finish a book.

PS: Do you have plans for any future works?

XYT: Right now I just plan to continue working while I complete Optometry, the book I’ve been working on since 2010. I can’t think about anything else until that book is done.